When I committed to photographing demonstrations, I committed myself to a whole new area of photography. This is photojournalism and I didn’t know how to do it.
Being in a situation like this requires a complex set of assessments. I know that I am a competent photographer, so I should be able to do photojournalism, but I had no experience and so didn’t know how to approach these new situations. I needed to find a way in.
Extinction Rebellion requires that everyone who is involved with their actions attend Non Violent Direct Action training. This is invaluable. The training covers what is legal and what is not, how the police work, how to relate to the police and to bystanders who may be angered by the action.
Kit is important, so I worked out what I needed to carry with me. Part of the commitment was to deliver pictures to the XR media team as rapidly as possible. This meant editing pictures in the field (usually a pub) and uploading the best of the work over wifi. So a laptop had to be in the bag with the camera and lenses.
Then I turned to a book I had owned for many years, Pictures on a Page by Harold Evans, then the editor of the Sunday Times. This book is full of technique and examples of what makes a good press picture. Unusual viewpoints, getting in close, getting to know your subjects and anticipation are all vital tools. Finally, ruthless editing and the willingness to crop are essential. This book was written in the analogue age but is totally relevant to today’s digital practice. It shows again and again what makes a good picture.
Time to get on with it. I arrived in London after rushing from work, knowing I had about two hours of daylight left. Immediately I encountered an XR roadblock on Westminster Bridge. Visually, it was chaotic. Rebels were mainly sitting on the ground. There were bags and bicycles scattered around. A field kitchen had been set up. People were packed close, dozens of hi-viz clad police officers were everywhere. I started looking for structural forms and good compositions. There were none, so I changed tack. I started looking at the faces and asking for pictures. Everyone agreed. A theme of smiling, motivated rebels and stern expressionless police started to emerge. Faces and colours were obviously going to be important in this work.
As I moved between sites of the activities, I realised the need to seek out the action. The good pictures were where people were doing something; playing instruments, marching, resisting or being arrested. I learned to read the situations better, anticipate what was happening next and get in close to the action. Since my first engagement with XR, I have spent the equivalent of several weeks covering actions in London. Also, several marches and actions in Brighton and numerous actions at the Horse Hill oil field in Surrey near Gatwick Airport.
Training and research are important but there is no substitute for getting into the action and doing the work. Getting out on the street, being cold, wet and tired but knowing you need to get the picture is where the skills grow.
I am deeply aware of the need to get the picture. The picture records the action and makes it available to the whole world. When a rebel glues themselves to a door, only the people in the vicinity get to see. When that person is unstuck and arrested, probably fewer people will see as the police may have cleared the area. The arrestee is making a sacrifice. They will spend potentially hours in handcuffs and the night in jail. They may well get a criminal record and a fine. They volunteer for this treatment because they know that it brings pressure to bear on the government and big business to take the climate crisis seriously. The more these sacrificial actions are reported, the more pressure is brought to bear. The public need to know that XR arrestees are not faceless, in fact, they are grandmothers, teachers, scientists, students, mothers, musicians, soldiers …
They are ordinary people who have decided it’s time to rebel against a system that is harming them. By photographing these actions, I honour what the arrestees are doing and amplify their acts.
In its recent issue 57, Foam magazine asked, ‘What can Photography Do?’ I can answer concisely for my photography practice. My photography recognises that there is a climate crisis, seeks to spread understanding of the crisis and amplifies the efforts of fellow campaigners.